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The Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics


Most cosmetic companies produce their products with synthetic ingredients and additives that are harmful to your health. Scientific studies have found that many common cosmetic ingredients can damage cellular structures and release hormone disrupting toxins. As these toxins accumulate in your body, they can cause even more health problems. Not only are all these toxins harmful to your body, but they are also toxic to fish and wildlife.

Here are some of the most common toxic ingredients you want to look out for in your makeup bag:

BHA (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHT

These toxins are commonly used as preservatives in food, moisturizers and lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, deodorant and fragrances. BHA and BHT disrupt the endocrine system and can leave toxic deposits in the organs and reproductive system. BHA has been banned in Europe and BHT applied to the skin of rats was associated with toxic effects in lung tissue, but it was judged that the low concentrations used in conventional cosmetics were safe.

Coal Tar Dyes

Labeled as p-phenylenediamine and colors labeled as numbers like FD&C Blue No. 1 or Blue 1. Coal tar dyes contain heavy metals that are toxic to the brain.


Ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben and other ingredients ending in –paraben are used as a preservative in many cosmetics. Parabens can be absorbed through the skin, hair and digestive system. They have been found in breast tumors. Once in the body, parabens disrupt the endocrine system and cause developmental and reproductive toxicity.

Fragrance or Parfum

Many ingredients in fragrance are neurotoxins, which are substances that are toxic to the brain. Some of neurotoxins have been linked to neurodegenerative disease. Fragrance can have dozens and sometimes hundreds of synthetic ingredients. A large portion of these synthetic ingredients can be absorbed through the skin and cause health problems later on in life.

What makes fragrance controversial is that companies don’t have to disclose the types of ingredients in their fragrance and therefore you don’t know what is in it. According to the EUs Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products, one in every 5 people suffer immune system damage from fragrance. Fragrance also contains phthalates, chemicals linked to hormone disruption which affects development and fertility. Most fragrances don’t list phalates but hide them under the term fragrance.

Heavy Metals

Mercury, arsenic, aluminum and cadmium are neurotoxins found in lipstick and other makeups. Heavy metals have been linked to neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, learning disabilities in children, low birth weight and decreased white and red blood cell production. In 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics evaluated 33 popular lipstick brands and found that 61 percent of lipstick had significant traces of lead.

What To Do About It!

Once you take the time to start looking at cosmetic labels and do some research on the ingredients listed on them, you will find that there are many harmful ingredients not listed on the ingredients list. The only way to eliminate all of the toxins from your conventional makeups is to throw them away and replace them with all natural or organic cosmetics. Keep in mind that the term ‘all natural’ can be misleading, because the labeling law that deals with this term isn’t specific enough. As a result, companies can find loopholes in this law and label an ingredient as natural when it is actually synthetic.

One of the best options to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals in makeups is to use them in small quantities. An even better option is to replace conventional cosmetics with the ones that are made with organic ingredients or natural ingredients that don’t have toxic properties. You may want to look into purchasing cosmetics made from Europe, because it generally has stricter regulations on cosmetics than most western countries.

Image credit: Flickr / Kanko


  1. http://www.ndhealthfacts.org/wiki/Food_Additives
  2. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/health/science/toxics/dirty-dozen-cosmetic-chemicals/
  3. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/health/science/toxics/fragrance-and-parfum/

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